What have I done that my college won't put me up?

May 6, 2005

A friend of mine has been made head of school at his university. He was telling me that before taking up the post, he is to be trained to meet its various obligations. I joked that among the most important would be the art of obscuration. It is easy for staff, perhaps because of their workload, to forget to communicate how decisions are reached. This can lead to students inventing their own reasons, especially where welfare is concerned.

As the mature students officer, I have been approached by students who believed that the university was set on getting rid of them.

Of course, that was not true, but the seeds of doubt had been sown by a confusing approach to their accommodation needs. Their fears illustrate the importance of clear, universal and unambiguous policies in all areas of student university life.

I, for instance, have no idea why I am in my college. I applied to the university. Whatever decisions were made to assign me to my college might well have been based on information as arbitrary as the sound of my voice on the phone. Hogwarts' sorting hat springs to mind. What influenced the decision was more likely to be my choice of degree, which is generally taught within the college.

What the college gives it can take away - I have been turned down for a place in my college halls for my second year. Was it because of an arbitrary thing such as the sound of my voice or, now that they know me, some other factor? In the absence of any real campus-wide control over accommodation, it would be easy to invent any number of reasons why I was not selected again. As a mature undergraduate, I seem to fall between the gaps in the criteria for selection -criteria that, like homemade bread, are firm on the outside and soft on the inside. But the key point is that no one, it seems, is sharing the recipe.

What is curious, given that all the colleges occupy the same few square miles of walled campus, is that it looks like students' needs are not central to decision-making when I hear from more than one college accommodation manager that they have no idea whether any of the others might have rooms available. Policies generally state that priorities are given to certain groups - first and third years, postgraduates and so on - and by default bar second-year undergraduate students from getting in.

But not always. If I were prone to irritability, I might consider that my college is institutionally ageist or that the university supports segregation.

I'm not keen on banging my rights on the table and getting involved in all that rubbish of students being "customers". But the university might want to be more careful. It seeks to attract more postgraduates and international students who are often older students. They will want a more transparent process by which their accommodation needs are looked after.

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